Gateway Journalism Review: not the watchdog it once was

Media watchers used to look forward to the next edition of the St. Louis Journalism Review [SJR]. Its founder/publisher Charles Klotzer could be counted on to take to task the St. Louis media powers-that-were for hypocrisy, dishonesty, bias, omissions and the full range of journalistic sins. He could also be counted on to give praise where it was due. Through Klotzer’s four-decade career as the leader and chief muse of SJR—and in more recent years, when Ed Bishop took the lead—SJR endured as one of only a handful of similar publications around the country. Always operating on a shoestring, SJR featured excellent writers and managed to maintain its independence and integrity.

More recently, the publication has morphed into the Gateway Journalism Review [GJR], moved to new headquarters at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and acquired a new publisher—William Freivogel, who doubles as the director of SIU-C’s School of Journalism. The result is a major disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong: I want to like GJR. In concept, it’s an excellent idea—a local media watchdog in an era in which Fox “News” dominates the airwaves with unfair and unbalanced Republican propaganda. And, at a time when opinion is routinely—blithely–passed off as fact, feet-to-the-fire fact-checking and analysis are more important than ever. GJR is not all bad. Some of its articles are good—despite the print version’s clunky, outdated layout.

But there have been some major missteps. One of the biggest came early in GJR’s new incarnation, when it ran an article, written by Beacon publisher Margie Freivogel, about the then-new St. Louis Beacon. Unfortunately, one fact undermined the objectivity of the article: Margie Freivogel is married to William Freivogel, publisher of GJR. Does the phrase “journalistic conflict of interest” ring a bell?

Things haven’t gotten much better since then. In a recent letter to the editor, St. Louis freelance writer and retired PR pro Barbara Finch wrote the following critique of GJR. [Note: One good thing I can say about GJR is that they published her letter.] Finch wrote:

What on earth has happened to the Journalism Review? The spring issue features 17 pages devoted to journalism schools. There are six articles written by J-school faculty members, none of whom have anything particularly new, interesting or noteworthy to say.

But the most troubling thing about this issue from my point of view is that it violates two of the rules that I learned in J-school [yes, it was decades ago, but I believe they are good rules.]

First, the article titled, “Why J-schools Aren’t Doing the Job they’re Supposed to Do,” by ‘Wally Sparks.’ The writer asks: “How will a journalism school address the main issue facing journalists today—that of lost credibility?” Readers who make it all the way to the end of the article learn that ‘Wally Sparks’ is a pseudonym for someone who “currently has a public relations connection to a University.” Talk about credibility! Why would a publication that asks to be trusted run an article by someone who is anonymous? Apparently, ‘Wally Sparks’ and the editor failed to read the article on ethics that appears several pages earlier (an article that uses the word “operationalize,” which should make any journalist cringe.)

The second rule I learned which is broken—twice—in the spring issue is this: we don’t write about ourselves. And even when we do write from a first-person perspective, we don’t write about our children. And we especially don’t use photos of our daughters to illustrate our stories…even if our daughters are attractive and smart and going to J-school.

Where are the stories about the media? Where is the criticism, the evaluation, the analysis of issues and reporting that will help us understand what we read and hear and watch every day? I used to love the St. Louis Journalism Review, because I learned something when I read it. I’ve always believed that quality journalism is crucial to democracy.

If this is the best that the Gateway Journalism Review can do, I’m really fearful about the future of both.

Finch’s letter sums it all up.  By the way, after her letter was published, Finch told me that, in its Letter to the Editor form, GJR asks for the writer’s address [as is customary with most publications, as a way of verifying that the writer is who he/she claims to be], but promises not to publish that information. Oops: Finch says she was a bit miffed to discover that, upon publication, GJR included her home address and zip code.

One final nit-pick: On the inside-front-cover of the most recent [Summer 2011] edition of GJR, there’s a self-promotional ad for a symposium celebrating the 40th anniversary of SJR/GJR. I acknowledge that this publication still has to scramble for money, and that a meeting featuring journalistic stars, such as the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and CBS News anchor Russ Mitchell, is probably a good draw. I wonder, though, if GJR can maintain any real level of independence when it’s grubbing for money from advertisers by selling them space in the convention hall, where, says the ad, they’ll “take advantage of this unique opportunity to promote your business to media professionals in the Midwest.” And, by the way, the body of the ad also touts the presence of “acedemics” [sic] in the audience.

It would certainly add to GJR’s credibility if it would, at the very least, take the time to spell check its own promotional copy.    [Image credit: Ann, Flickr Creative Commons]